After nearly six years without a proper console sequel, Mario Kart is back, kicking butt and taking names with the eighth installment in Nintendo's long-running racing series. And while the reviews haven't been anything less than glowing, your friendly USgamer editors Bob Mackey and Kat Bailey decided to investigate and see if this latest Mario Kart is worth all the hype.
Back in the Driver's Seat
Kat: I've always kind of felt like playing Mario Kart would be like getting back on a bike (or a motorcycle, in this case). I figured it would be easy to pick up even after a multi-year absence. Yeah... not so much.
I'm ashamed to admit that the Mushroom Cup kicked my ass in the initial go-around at 150cc. I would get into first or second place; after which I would be immediately crushed by a succession of fireballs, boomerangs, or red shells and fall back. I only managed a respectable fourth place in my first race because I happened to get an invincibility star just as everyone else got nailed by a lightning bolt. Rubber-banding at its best, right?
Things went a little better though when I kicked the speed down to 100cc and went back to the more basic karts, though. Without the somewhat crazy handling of the advanced karts, I had a much easier time staying on the road and building a respectable lead. Bob will tell you that I did most of the winning after that initial run. Right, Bob?
Bob: Yeah, I hate to sound like a baby (despite how at home I would feel in Mario Kart 8's day care of a roster), but 100cc was my savior as well. After we bumped the speed down a notch, the expected Mario Kart mechanics fit like a glove. I was skeptical about how much Mario Kart 8 fixed some of the last console installment's missteps -- even after all of those glowing reviews -- but I was won over after just a few races. While MK8 has its share of "pity power-ups" meant to give those in last place a chance to catch up, they're not nearly as frequent as what went down in Mario Kart Wii.
True to the system's sense of inclusiveness, Mario Kart Wii had a habit of making it feel like you didn't really need to be there. Skilled players were ultimately punished for taking first place, and the winner of any given race was ultimately decided by luck. Those irritating items are still present in MK8, but in the 20-or-so races I've participated in so far, I think I've only been hit by a blue shell once. I'd consider that progress.
The driving also feels a lot better, too, which is something I didn't pick up on when we played split-screen. When I brought the game home this morning, I found myself effortlessly powersliding and boosting around every turn, with the competition so far behind me that I would often take a longer-than-average slide just so I could have someone in front of me to smack with a shell.
Something I didn't expect to impress me that much are Mario Kart 8's visuals, which make Nintendo's tardiness to the HD generation even more tragic. It's such a fantasic looking game, and the treatment Nintendo gave to some of those old Mario Kart 64 tracks gave me fantasies of an entire MK64 remake -- or maybe just some ambitious DLC. Did you feel the same way, Kat?
Kat: Oh my god, if Nintendo put Mario Kart 64 DLC, I would purchase it in a nano-second. And that's even knowing that Mario Kart 64 tracks aren't actually that great! I mean, they're pretty clean and everything, but I think that a lot of the love for the MK64 tracks is nostalgic in nature, in my opinion. Many of the tracks in Mario Kart DS and Double Dash are just miles better than anything you'll find in MK64. But because I'm such a sucker, I would happily buy MK64 DLC. I ant everything to be the same, Bob. I hate new things.
Seriously though, the retro tracks continue to the best thing about Mario Kart. It was really great to see old favorites like Royal Raceway and Toad's Turnpike (there I go with the Mario Kart 64 tracks again) getting a fresh coat of paint. They really looked terrific in high-definition, and they added some new elements that I wasn't expecting. For one thing, I don't even remember there being a ramp right in the middle of Moo Moo Farm. Maybe I'm just misremembering the original track?
In any case, this is all par for the course in terms of Mario Kart. What shocked me was that it let me to upload highlights. And not just to some Nintendo server, either! To Youtube!
Sharing Mario Kart is Caring about Mario Kart
Bob: Yes, Nintendo allowing you to upload a highlight reel onto YouTube represents a bold lurch forward for a company that's slowly coming to terms with "that whole Internet thing." As expected, though, the execution isn't flawless. As a test, Kat and I tried out the YouTube feature after a race, and it took about ten minutes to complete the process. Now, keep in mind I know nothing about programming, engineering, or anything else that would be valuable to society, but it'd be great if this processing and uploading could happen in the background. Then again, it takes an inordinately long time just to post a screenshot or a crude drawing to Miiverse, so I'm sure I'll use the YouTube feature just as often.
I will say, though, that the highlight reel manages to make even your lousiest Mario Kart run look flawless-mostly because it shows your best moments and leaves all of those misjudged turns on the cutting room floor. Plus, it's great to see those amazing tracks from a different angles other than the standard behind-the-kart view. Do you see yourself using this feature that often, Kat?
Kat: I do, actually. It's so much easier to share clips from Youtube than anywhere else that I might just use it on principle. I love that Mario Kart of all games is ahead of pretty much every major sports sim in that regard, including Madden NFL, FIFA, NHL, and MLB: The Show. You would think that being able to share highlights on Youtube would be a no-brainer in this day and age, but nope. Not only that, but Mario Kart 8 automatically edits the race to include the best moments. We actually looked like competent racers rather than the complete dopes that we were in the early going.
That said, while I don't wish to pile on the Wii U, it really is a slow process. I blame the console for that more than the game itself. As much as I like that gamepad (really!), its backwards compatibility, and its various control options, the Wii U really is a piece of crap. I'm sadly reminded of that fact everytime I turn on the Wii U, even to play games that I really like, such as Mario Kart.
Still, I think that Mario Kart manages to do a lot of things right, and even manages to keep with more powerful consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in terms of social media sharing. I'll be honest-I never expected to see anything like it on the Wii U. So good on Mario Kart 8, I suppose! Another thing that kind of impressed me: the multiplayer. I was shocked by how easy it was to get a game going online with another person.
Bob: Yeah, Mario Kart 8's multiplayer is booming. In less than a minute, I was able to jump into a regional lobby and enter a race with 11 human opponents much craftier than the computer-controlled competition I'm accustomed to. All of this online action happens within the cushy, guarded walls of Nintendo's safe zone, so the options are about as limited as you'd expect. You can only communicate with fellow racers by using one of several bland statements, and, as far as I know, there's no way to directly communicate with a specific racer within Mario Kart 8 (outside of people on your friends list) if you're looking for a rematch. When it comes to Nintendo games, I wish there was an "I'm a damned adult" option that would let me circumvent their harsh restrictions, but I guess that would affect all of those parents who don't want to bother with all of that "parenting" business.
While Mario Kart 8 makes jumping into an online game quick and effortless, there's something to be said about how little there is to multiplayer. The recent Mario Golf's online options are a little clunky, but it still does a great job of incentivizing you to participate in weekly tournaments and challenges by offering up fitting rewards. I know it's been done to death, but even a simple experience point system would be great, if only to measure my own progress.
Apropos of nothing, I feel the need to comment on Mario Kart's selection of characters-in case you couldn't tell by my earlier comments, I'm a little annoyed that so many baby versions of Nintendo characters are taking up slots that could go to less irritating choices. Still, I love the Koopalings, and it's great to see them all represented here. I think I'm just tickled that Nintendo is stuck with a clumsy reference to flash-in-the-pan talk show host Morton Downey Jr. nearly 25 years since he was last relevant.
Kat: The Koopalings are a delight, and I'm glad to see that they're getting the facetime that they deserve, particularly given how much I dislike Bowser Jr. (who I can only imagine is from Bowser's second marriage-the guy gets around). There's a rumor going around that they represent various members of the Super Mario Bros. 3 development staff. If that's the case, then I'm kind of dying to know which Koopaling corresponds to Shigeru Miyamoto.
As for the baby characters, I don't mind them so much. I actually had a lot of success playing as Baby Rosalina on the motorcycle. I can only assume that their continued inclusion is the product of some inside joke within Nintendo. Maybe they just think that Baby Mario and company are really hilarious? Regardless, the second that we get to Baby Waluigi, I'm out.
I suppose what I'm curious to see is whether Mario Kart 8 will ultimately have legs with the gaming community. Unpopular as the GameCube was, Mario Kart Double Dash still gets a lot of love in these parts. Of course, the GameCube was more successful than the Wii U ever was, holding tight to second place in market share for a very long time (contrary to the narrative that the Xbox utterly destroyed Nintendo in that generation). I'm guessing that the Mario Kart community will keep playing it, but I wouldn't be shocked if the multiplayer lobbies are barren in a month or two.
Still, I think Mario Kart 8 will be a nice companion to Super Smash Bros. this fall. The Wii U is already my preferred multiplayer system thanks to games like Super Mario 3D World and Animal Crossing Sweet Days (known as Puke & Run in our house-long story), so I will have plenty of reason to break out Mario Kart 8 in the months and possibly years ahead. I've occasionally joked that there should be a corollary to Godwin's Law stating, "Whichever party brings up Mario Kart in an argument about potential Nintendo platform saviors is the automatic loser," but I'm really pleased with how Mario Kart 8 has come out. If you should happen to grab a Wii U after the inevitable price drop, make sure to pick up Mario Kart 8 along with Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and Super Mario 3D World. I think you'll be pleased.